For Georgia Tech, many things happened en route to 7-7. The Yellow Jackets barely got bowl-eligible, and then they got bowl-ineligible by losing the ACC Championship game, and then the NCAA granted a waiver that allowed Tech to be invited back to the Sun Bowl, which is where it became the only team ever to beat the preseason No. 1 after losing at home to Middle Tennessee.
When you lose seven games, you can’t say you’ve had a good season. (Unless you’re Duke, which in football nobody aspires to be.) When you win seven games after starting 2-4, neither can you say the whole thing was a total loss. The Jackets took a season going wrong and wrestled it into something that seemed better than mediocrity, even though .500 is the definition of mediocrity.
The sense now is that better days are ahead, but that sensation is largely the result of beating USC in El Paso, and bowl results aren’t always indicative of future performance. (Example: Georgia Tech lost the 2008 Chick-fil-A Bowl by 35 points and went 11-3 in 2009.) The Jackets wanted badly to beat Southern Cal, which didn’t want to play.
Yes, Tech should be better in 2013 than in 2012. It loses three starters on offense and three on defense, and the absence of quarterback Tevin Washington clears the way for Vad Lee, of whom much is expected. The guess is that interim defensive coordinator Charles Kelly passed the audition with his work against Florida State and USC, and he has to be considered an upgrade over Al Groh, for whom nothing worked.
The schedule hasn’t been finalized, but it could be adventurous. Assuming the ACC’s rotation holds in its expansion to 14 teams, the Jackets will play host to Virginia Tech, Clemson and North Carolina. There’s a chance Florida State will play here, and there’s also a chance the Jackets could visit Clemson for a second year running. There will be trips to BYU and Miami, but it’s unclear how stout the Hurricanes will be once the NCAA gets done with them. Plus the Georgia game will be in Atlanta.
If Lee is as good as advertised and the defense is indeed better, the 2013 Jackets could win nine or 10 games. But here’s the sobering part: Tech hasn’t won that many games in a year since the bulk of Chan Gailey’s leftovers departed for the NFL in January 2010. In Paul Johnson’s first two seasons here, his teams were 20-7; they’ve since gone 21-19. Since Oct. 14, 2011, the Jackets are 9-12.
Johnson takes pains to note that his teams have at least tied for the best record in the Coastal Division three times in five seasons, but the Coastal has become the lesser half of a conference that still struggles for national credibility. Yes, the Jackets wound up representing the Coastal in the ACC Championship game, but that came in a year when Virginia Tech was awful by its standards and North Carolina was on probation and Miami chose to step aside.
Credit Johnson and his Jackets for being too stubborn to collapse, but Johnson’s pride has never been in doubt, and his stylized offense remains the best thing Tech has going for it. But the Institute will in the coming weeks make a hire that could have a greater effect on the football program than Johnson’s choice for defensive coordinator.
Dan Radakovich hired Johnson, but first the athletic director had to persuade himself that a run-based approach could win big in the 21st century. Then Johnson made the AD look smart by beating Georgia in Year 1 and winning the ACC in Year 2. Now Radakovich works at Clemson, which means Johnson will soon have a new boss.
Tech’s new AD might see underwhelming attendance as evidence that pitchouts don’t move the ticketing needle. The new AD might be more swayed by recruiting rankings. (At North Carolina State, Debbie Yow cited tepid signing classes as partial cause for Tom O’Brien’s dismissal.) The new AD might ask when/if this program will again be competitive against Georgia.
The nice part about beating USC was that it stirred, pun intended, a bit of a buzz around a program that hasn’t lately raised much ruckus. But that was one game, and an odd game at that. The new AD might, as new ADs do, look hard at a body of work.
Dave Braine hired Gailey as a coach and handed him a new five-year contract in November 2005, but it took less than two years for Radakovich, who succeeded Braine, to decide Chan wasn’t his man. Yes, Johnson has been better than Gailey, but maybe by not as much as you’d think. Through five seasons, Gailey was 37-27. Through five seasons, Johnson is 41-26.
This isn’t to suggest that Johnson could or should be fired. The belief here is that he’s a good coach, but it would behoove him to have a big 2013. Athletic directors find it easier to embrace a coach who’s holding a trophy.
By Mark Bradley